Jesus does not fit the usual categories for a founder of a religion
I have been involved in a number of inter-religious dialogues. In these exchanges adherents of different religious traditions share their beliefs and practices. Often the motive is to advance tolerance. We seek to discern beliefs and sometimes practices that different religions share in common.
One of those attempts to find commonalities is a tendency to characterize the founders of world religions in one of two categories. They are either supremely inspiring teachers, like the Buddha, Confucius, or the many gurus who have molded Hinduism. Or they are powerful prophets, spokesmen for the divine, like Moses, Zoroaster, Muhammad or Bahá’u’lláh.
Where does Jesus fit? A common answer is that he is either a great teacher or a great prophet. For some he is both. He is seen as a typical specimen of a founder of a religion.
When we read the gospels, we do indeed encounter a Jesus who is a great teacher. The gospels tell us Jesus is constantly teaching, both his disciples and the crowds who follow him. He is a provocative teacher both in style (take the parables) and in content (take the Sermon on the Mount).
At times in the gospels we also find people acknowledging Jesus as a great prophet (see Matthew 16:13-14). In fact, his followers come to believe he is the great prophet that Moses had proclaimed that God would raise up to carry on Moses’ work (see Deuteronomy 18:18).
The Distinctive Role Christianity Assigns to Jesus
But if you limit your understanding of Jesus to just a great teacher or a great prophet, you are going to have a hard time understanding the animating spirit of Christianity. The Jesus of orthodox Christianity does not fully fit either category.
For example, the orthodox creeds of Christianity (the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed) say nothing at all about Jesus as a teacher or a prophet. Their focus is not on what Jesus taught or preached. Rather they focus is on who Jesus is and what he did.
I note this because I want to contend that in orthodox Christianity at least, the central role of Jesus is his role of Messiah and Savior of the world. It’s why the name of our religion is Christianity, a name based upon the title Christos, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Messiah.
Behind the title Savior is the concept of liberator, a concept with deep roots in the Old Testament. God saved or liberated Israel from bondage in Egypt in the Exodus experience. And the Exodus story is the governing paradigm for salvation in the Bible.
For Christianity Jesus is the liberator not only for Christians, but also for the whole world. This Christian understanding of Jesus is given expression on the lips of the Samaritans in John 4:
They [the Samaritans] said to the woman, “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” [John 4:42]
Jesus sets us and the whole cosmos free not primarily through his teachings, but through his actions—his life, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension. These are exactly the actions the creeds give their attention to.
Now this makes it difficult to place Jesus in the usual categories when one is comparing world religions. What is supremely important for Christianity is not what Jesus said (important though Christians take his teachings and his words), but what he did. It is through those actions that he liberates the world.
Although I am not a deep scholar of world religions, the concept of savior does not seem to me to be a common category when talking about the religious leaders of other religions. From what I have read about the concept of the bodhisattva, Mahayana Buddhism may be envisioning something close to the Christian concept. But as I said, the concept of savior does not seem to be a common one in other religions.
The Practical Implications of Christianity’s Understanding of Jesus
Yet if you are to understand Christianity, you need to pay attention to this element of how Christians understand Jesus. It’s how we understand the very character of a Christian. Let me show how practical that is for my own Presbyterian faith tradition.
According to our Book of Order (our denomination’s governing constitution), the Christian Church “consists of all persons in every nation, together with their children, who profess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and commit themselves to live in a fellowship under his rule.” *
I call attention to the exact wording of this statement. The Christian is the one who professes faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The profession of faith is not primarily in a teacher or a prophet, but in one who is acknowledged as Lord and Savior. That profession of faith is accompanied by a commitment to live under Jesus’ rule within a community of faith (a fellowship, meaning a local community of believers).
In the New Testament this profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is given visible expression in the action of baptism. In the classical baptismal liturgies, the one who is to be baptized renounces sin, evil, and the devil, and one professes faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. One makes a decisive break with one’s past and enters into a new future. That future is now defined as allegiance and commitment to Jesus as Lord and Savior.
Baptism is a comparable experience to the naturalization ceremony new American citizens undergo. They renounce an old citizenship in order to adopt a new one. And that new citizenship for the Christian is lived out in the community of a local church, which might also be described as a colony of the Kingdom of God.
In the Christian community you find people understand how Jesus saves in different ways. Yet as a community of faith, we continue to use this terminology of savior and salvation in talking about Jesus. This strikes me as something distinctive about Christianity, which tends to complicate inter-religious dialogue with other religious traditions.
I am not trying in this posting to disparage people who cannot see Jesus as anything but a great teacher or prophet. They honor Jesus in this level of respect that they accord him. My point is that if we try to limit a discussion of Jesus to the two categories of teacher and prophet, we will never understand the distinctive character of the Christian faith. Nor will we understand the deep, emotional devotion many Christians give to Jesus.
If others who are more knowledgeable about world religions contest the generalizations I have made in this posting, I welcome your comments of correction or clarification.
* This was the language traditionally found in paragraph G-4.0100 in all versions of the Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) until the latest version adopted in 2011. That the language has been dropped from the latest version of the Book of Order is a serious deficiency, in my opinion.